The United States military is a master in logistics. With forces deployed and stationed across the globe, the military is extremely effective at getting their personnel anything that they may need to accomplish their mission – both when and where they need it.
But regardless of how effective the military – or any organizations is – at logistics and supply chain management, there’s always going to be time that passes from when something is needed in the field, that need is identified, a request for that part or product is submitted and the item is delivered. That’s just the reality of having troops and personnel on the other side of the globe, separated by countless miles and entire oceans.
But what if that part, or that product, or that mission critical item didn’t have to be transported from a warehouse somewhere to the warfighter in theater? What if that part could be manufactured closer to the edge, on-demand, when and where it’s needed?
That would effectively slash the amount of time from when the need is identified and that mission-critical item is available to the warfighter. And that’s exactly what the military is exploring today.
A process that is most widely known as 3D printing – and often referred to in the military as additive manufacturing, one of its original names – is now making it possible for parts and other items to be manufactured in theater. 3D printing involves the layering of a substance – which can include plastics, metals or other materials – by a computer to effectively manufacture a product from a virtual blueprint. And that opens up a lot of doors for the military.
When troops and military personnel are deployed, it’s virtually impossible to send them overseas and into theater with every conceivable part or product that they will need to keep their weapons and other military platforms functional and effective. It would be a logistical nightmare.
However, it’s far less daunting of a logistical task to send troops into the field with 3D printing capabilities and a catalog of virtual designs that can be brought to life using their 3D printers.
This sounds like something out of a science fiction novel…but it may be closer than we think.
RAMBO proves 3D printing is practical
A recent article in Army Technology takes a closer look at the concept and technologies behind bringing “additive manufacturing” or 3D printing to the military and provides two excellent examples of just what these technologies can deliver to the warfighter.
The first of the examples that they provide involves a grenade launcher that was affectionately named, “RAMBO.”
RAMBO is actually an acronym for “rapid additively manufactured ballistics ordnance,” and it’s the name that the US Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) gave to a M203A1 grenade launcher that was produced (with the exception of its springs and fasteners) using additive manufacturing techniques.
Although a few additional steps were needed in addition to the 3D printing to make RAMBO ready to fire – fire it did. And that’s a very interesting development for the military. Even if 3D printing entire weapons remains outside of our current capabilities, this experiment shows that we already have the ability to create parts that could get a damaged or disabled weapon back into the fight.
The other exciting example of 3D printing in military applications involved the creation of an entire – albeit unseaworthy – submarine. Utilizing the world’s first industrial-sized 3D printer, the U.S. Navy’s Disruptive Technology Lab and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) managed to 3D print parts of the hull of a submarine that were then joined together to create a whole sub.
Although more needs to be done to make an actual, seaworthy submarine that can be used in warfare, the experiment is considered a rousing success that illustrates just what can be possible in the future utilizing these technologies. And what’s really exciting about this particular program was the cost and time – it was done in about 33 percent of the time of a regular sub build, and at 10 percent of the cost.
The role of digital design
We’re still early in the 3D printing revolution – especially when it comes to using the technology to manufacture weapons, parts and other mission-critical products for the military. However, it’s very clear how useful and beneficial this technology can be for cutting the cost of manufacturing, expediting manufacturing times and getting product where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
Enabling all of this are CAD and other digital design solutions making the digitalization of these products possible, and powering these 3D printers. Using these software solutions, the military is able to scan objects and build digital 3D models of them. Those models become the blueprints to replicate these products via additive manufacturing.
Although the day when our military can 3D print a weapon in the field may be well into the future, its CAD and other digital design solutions that will make it all possible, and help make our military more efficient.